Reported by Justin Franz for Montana Free Press.
Montana’s largest railroad company is making changes to a controversial new employee attendance policy after receiving pushback from railroaders and unions. But even with the changes, labor officials remain unimpressed and said BNSF Railway’s new policies could lead to unsafe working conditions on the railroad.
Railroaders already lead chaotic work lives — one day they might go to work at 9 a.m. and the next at 5 p.m. — but BNSF employees alleged that the company’s new “Hi-Viz” attendance policy made it even worse by penalizing them for taking time off for a family emergency, illness or fatigue. Union officials say more than 700 railroaders have quit since the policy was implemented in February. Among those who walked was Brady Wassam, a Columbia Falls man who came from a family of railroaders and worked for BNSF for eight years.
“It felt offensive,” Wassam told MTFP last month. “I gave so much to this job, and this new system made it seem like it wasn’t enough.”
Under the Hi-Viz system, every employee was assigned 30 points, with points deducted for unplanned time off. The exact number of points deducted depends on the type of absence and where it falls on the calendar (weekend days and holidays cost more points). An employee can get four points back if they’re available to work 14 days in a row. If an employee loses all their points, they can be disciplined. If they lose their points multiple times they can be fired.
Union officials have called Hi-Viz “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier” and threatened to go on strike earlier this year until a federal judge stopped them. But that ruling hasn’t stopped railroaders from expressing frustrations with the policy, and last month union members protested the policy at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in Omaha. BNSF is owned by Berkshire.
BNSF officials said they planned to review the attendance policy after three months, and on Friday announced that the company will make some changes starting June 1 in response to employee feedback.
“Over the last three months, you have raised concerns about the program’s details. We hear you,” said Matt Garland, BNSF’s vice president of transportation, in a video posted to YouTube. “We are grateful for the constructive feedback we have received.”
Starting next month, employees will not be penalized for taking an unplanned day off before or after a scheduled vacation or personal day. Because railroaders often overnight at an away terminal, they’ll sometimes need to call out of work before a scheduled day off so that they can make appointments or meet other commitments.
The railroad is also introducing more ways for employees to earn points under the Hi-Viz system. For example, those who do work on the day before or after a paid leave day will earn one point. Points can also be earned by employees who work on “high impact days” (holidays and other dates on the calendar that people traditionally want off) or who report to work on the weekend between 12 p.m. Friday and 12 p.m. Sunday. Finally, the top 10% of employees at a terminal who are available more than their co-workers can earn an additional seven Hi-Viz points per month.
The railroad also announced that it is changing the points limit so that employees will be able to earn up to 37 points.
BNSF officials said they believe the revised system will help employees better manage their time off and help the railroad achieve the staffing levels it needs to move freight. But union officials were not moved by the changes.
“BNSF Railway’s newly announced changes to its Hi-Viz attendance policy are little more than fluff,” said Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Hi-Viz has been an abject failure. This unreasonable policy [that] keeps locomotive engineers and other railroaders on call day after day, around the clock, has caused hundreds of BNSF’s employees to quit and it has made recruitment of new employees a nightmare.”
Union officials said the railroad has brought its labor woes on itself by making deep staffing cuts to appease shareholders. According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, America’s largest freight railroads have reduced their workforce by a combined 45,000 people, or 29%, in the last six years.
Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, called BNSF’s attendance policy changes “unimpressive” and worried that instituting a points system was incentivising employees to work while fatigued, a practice that could lead to dangerous mistakes and accidents.
“It is appalling that BNSF’s response to widespread reports of worker fatigue is to incentivize this exhaustion,” Regan said. “BNSF’s proposal to reward the ‘top performers’, or those who have the top 10% of work hours, is a clear attempt to incentivize these fatigued workers to double down.”
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